Tornadoes don't have the best reputation, so the notion that we could harness them to provide electricity is a tough sell. Louis Michaud, however, is determined to get people to buy the idea.
Michaud, a former oil company engineer based in Sarnia, Ontario, has been noodling on this idea of tornado-based energy since 1969, and since his retirement in 2006, he's devoted his time to making his Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE) a reality.
Ideas in the wind
When Michaud began working on the project, his original goal wasn't wind energy. Michaud was looking for water, specifically an alternative to conventional condensation by heating the air and then capturing condensation while it cooled. While the idea didn't pan out, it provided the necessary spark for Michaud to start thinking about tornadoes as the air was heated from the ground and cooled from above ... just like a tornado.
Then, in the 1980s, a project in Spain used the sun to warm air near the ground and then funneled up to a turbine to create energy. While solar chimneys have been around for centuries, working on a scale capable of meeting larger power needs would require an incredibly tall chimney, Michaud told National Geographic. But tornadoes are nature's chimneys in a way, so why build a chimney when you can just make a tornado?
And that's what Michaud has dedicated his life to doing for about a decade. He's made a number of prototypes over the years, all cylindrical chambers with entryways that let in heat waste captured from a power source or use artificially created hot air. The air rises up in a circular pattern and creates a vortex that in turn grabs more hot air as it grows taller in the sky. The more the tornado gets fed, the more the attached turbine's wheel spins, creating energy.
Michuad's vortexes have never grown very tall, typically under 65 feet, and that means they're not producing a lot of energy. But, Michaud theorizes that the taller the vortex gets, the more energy it will produce.
Seeking extra power
One way to make a big vortex is power plants. Power plants generate a great deal of heat waste already, so why not harness that waste to create a tornado that will turn some turbines?
An AVE would gather up all that heat waste and use it to maintain the vortex. Speaking to Popular Science, Michaud said this process could "increase output [of the power plant] by 10 to 20 percent, without using any additional fuel." If you're wondering how big this tornado created by a power plant would be, the answer is about 9 miles high. Most tornadoes only clock in about 5.6 miles.
To keep his research and development going, Michaud received $300,000 in grant money from the Thiel Foundation's Breakout Labs, a fund created by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel that provides money to scientific ideas that need a financial push to get to the next level.
Michaud, teaming up with Lambton College in Ontario, used the grant to construct a much larger version of the AVE on the campus of the college. You can see that AVE in action in the video below and hear Michaud talk about his passion project.
To scale up the AVE, Michaud told National Geographic that it would require a group of experts from multiple fields and about $1 billion in development costs. The end result would be an AVE that adds 200 megawatts of power capacity to a plant, potentially powering hundreds of thousands of homes.
It would still take a few years to build, and the project would have to address a few potential issues, including whether or not the AVE can keep its storm stable.
Nilton Renno, a professor at the University of Michigan, explained the issue to Popular Science: "The problem is that if you create a storm, you force it to be organized, and I don't see any guarantee that the storm won't get disorganized,"
Michaud countered that there's little concern for the vortex getting away from the plant. "What you're doing is feeding it from the bottom," he explained to Popular Science, adding that closing the AVE's lower vents would stop the cycle and kill the vortex. All energy plants have fail safes, after all, so the AVE isn't any different in that regard.
Until a large donor or a power company comes along and helps to scale up the project, Michaud's AVE is an interesting energy novelty, but one that he's dedicated to proving does work.